Two Questions from St. Louis

Delegates pray together during the February 23, 2019, opening session of the Special Session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Paul Jeffrey for United Methodist News Service.

In the aftermath of the special called General Conference in St. Louis, there are two questions that could point to possible misunderstandings of its outcome.

1)     Was the decision to affirm the church’s current position on LGBTQ ministry an answer to prayer?

The 2019 General Conference was the object of more prayer than any other church event in my lifetime. Church members undergirded The Commission on a Way Forward with concentrated, widespread prayer for 18 months. We felt and appreciated those prayers and notes of encouragement! The Council of Bishops instituted a “Praying Our Way Forward” effort that assigned each annual conference an opportunity to pray for the 2019 General Conference in an intentional, concentrated way leading up to February. Individual United Methodists engaged in weekly fasting and daily prayer on behalf of the General Conference for the nine months leading up to the conference. The General Conference itself began with a whole day of prayer for all the delegates and observers.

Yet many progressive and moderate United Methodists are treating the outcome of the special General Conference as if God ignored all the prayers. Could it be that the decision of the General Conference is in fact God’s will, an answer to the many prayers that were prayed?

It is wise not to speak dogmatically when speaking about how God answers prayer because there is a lot of mystery in how prayer works. God is perfectly capable of answering a prayer with yes, no, or wait. It is often difficult to draw a straight line from a particular prayer prayed to a specific outcome.

But it seems equally unwise to simply discount all the prayers on behalf of the conference and say that those prayers were not answered. It sounds like some people are saying that if God does not orchestrate a specific outcome they agree with, God did not answer the prayer.

When I look at the many roadblocks put in the way of the Traditional Plan before and during General Conference, I cannot deny the miraculous aspect to the passing of it in any form, even with its shortcomings. I detailed in another blog the many ways the deck was stacked against the Traditional Plan. Is it not possible, then, that the passage of the Traditional Plan was indeed an answer to prayer?

The implications of this line of thinking lead us toward a heart of peace and away from a heart of war. In my own prayer life leading up to General Conference, I had stopped praying for a specific outcome and instead asked for God’s will to be done. That prayer posture led me to have peace in my soul, regardless of the outcome at General Conference. I believe the passage of the Traditional Plan was the right decision, but passage of the One Church Plan would not have been a devastating outcome for me. I had confidence that a faithful form of ministry would exist, no matter which way the General Conference decided.

People on all sides of the questions involved can view the outcome of General Conference as an answer to prayer and still make their own personal decisions about how to respond. For some opponents, the passing of the Traditional Plan might have been God’s way of freeing them from a system they believe shackles them from fully living out their faith commitments. That is the way I would have viewed it had the One Church Plan passed.

If the decision of General Conference was an answer to prayer, then those who disagree might be better served to simply accept the decision as the decision of the church. They can then determine for themselves whether God is calling them to live within that decision or remove themselves from it. Such an approach holds promise for a healthier outcome for General Conference 2020 than simply returning to the same battlefield and fighting the same battle over again.

2)     Was General Conference 2019 called to finally “decide” how the church’s ministry with LGBTQ persons would be shaped?

The rhetoric used by some progressives and moderates for many years has been that General Conference needs to decide this question. The implication is that we had not yet decided, even though General Conference voted the same way every four years for 45 years.

Does that mean that something is not “decided” until the decision is one that I can support? Short of a favorable decision, must I regard every earlier conclusion as provisional or temporary? At what point is a question finally decided?

This line of thinking is very frustrating to traditionalists and evangelicals. We believe that the General Conference decided the question in 1972. Every General Conference since then has affirmed that decision. Is it right for those who disagree to never accept the church’s decision until or unless they can convince the church to change its mind?

What we now have is many leaders – bishops, superintendents, clergy, annual conferences, and now one central conference – that have simply decided that, since the result of General Conference was not to their liking, they refuse to accept it or live by it. Never mind that our church’s structure is built around decision making by conference (in this case, a global decision by the General Conference, the only body empowered to speak for the church as a whole). Never mind that the General Conference is the primary instrument of unity in The United Methodist Church. Never mind that clergy have vowed before God to abide by the teachings of the church and the enactments of General Conference, whether they agree or not.

For those clamoring for “unity,” the refusal to abide by the church’s primary instrument of unity comes across as the height of hypocrisy. That refusal leads to the interpretation that unity is only desirable when it fits my preconceived ideas of how the church should be. That makes the individual, not the body in conference, the final arbiter of what is the true teaching of the church. This is precisely the atomization of the church that opponents of the One Church Plan warned about. Make the individual (pastor, congregation, annual conference) the final arbiter of truth and one has a shattering of both truth and unity.

Since so many leaders and annual conferences have publicly vowed not to live by the teachings and requirements of the church, we can no longer pretend there is any interest in unity. Rather, we must acknowledge that the primary interest is in doing ministry as each individual sees fit (what is right in one’s own eyes). Only if each individual is allowed to do ministry in the way he or she sees fit could there be any hope of holding the organizational church together (the One Church Plan). However, that is not unity, but surrender to individualism and congregationalism.

Since the 1740s, Methodism has been built around the unity of the conference. Those who could not abide by the will of the conference either departed or were removed. This is how unity was preserved in the church, with organized separations happening in our church’s history about once every ten years for the first 150 years of its existence. The attempt to “stay together” despite an unwillingness to live by the decisions of General Conference is simply “un-Methodist.” It sacrifices the unity of the church on the altar of individual conscience.

We must let this current reality sink in deeply, if we are to hope for an alternative way to move forward. The widespread disavowal of the General Conference actions means there is no way to move forward together in one body. The original conclusion of some at General Conference 2016 that separation was inevitable now dramatically shows itself to have been correct. Since separation of some form is inevitable because we cannot live with others who practice their faith in ways that are deeply offensive to us (on both sides), how can we move into a new relationship with one another in the least painful and most Christ-like way? Or are we doomed to repeat history and continue to fight over power and control of an institution?

 

 

What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part 2)

In the last Perspective, there was a report on what actually passed the special called General Conference in St. Louis, including what the Judicial Council will probably rule as constitutional and therefore able to be implemented. This Perspective offers a behind the scenes look at how some of the proponents of the One Church Plan attempted to obstruct and prevent the Traditional Plan from being adopted. This includes ways they tried to prevent corrective revisions to the Traditional Plan so that the Judicial Council would declare it unconstitutional. You will find here a more detailed account of the General Conference legislative process.

In order to prevail in St. Louis, traditionalists and evangelicals had to fight against some very significant headwinds. From the very beginning, the deck was stacked against any plan for amicable separation or a traditionalist plan. Separation was taken off the table by the Council of Bishops at the 2016 General Conference, when they declined to accept a request to form a commission on separation. Instead, they formed a commission to formulate other alternative plans for the denomination to move forward.

The Traditional Plan was taken off the table in November 2017 when the Council of Bishops asked the Commission on a Way Forward to work on only the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan. The only reason there was a Traditional Plan at all is that a small group of bishops insisted that one be included at their May 2018 meeting. Since the decision to include a Traditional Plan came only two weeks before the Commission’s final meeting, the Commission was unable to develop the plan. It was left to a few individual members of the Commission and several bishops to flesh out the Traditional Plan.

At that same May 2018 meeting, the Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan by a vote of nearly 60 percent. The Council argued before the Judicial Council that only the One Church Plan should be considered by the General Conference, with the Connectional Conference Plan and Traditional Plan included only for historical context. The Judicial Council rebuffed the bishops’ request, determining that all three plans should be considered by General Conference, along with any other petitions that were in harmony with the call for the special session.

Undeterred, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the constitutionality and legality of all three plans in advance of General Conference, some of them perhaps hoping that their preferred plan would gain the endorsement of the Judicial Council. In what appears in retrospect to be an ideological ruling, the Judicial Council ruled that the Constitution did not require uniform standards for clergy, thus validating the One Church Plan. It also ruled about a dozen provisions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional, meaning that they would need significant amendments in order to become legal. Since the time for submitting legislation to General Conference had passed, those amendments would have to be proposed and passed on the floor of General Conference — a daunting task.

Proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan were written to make it constitutional. The revisions were sent to many delegates via email. However, the conference secretary refused to allow the revisions to be distributed to the delegates in written form. That meant that the delegates would not have a printed copy of the proposed revisions to examine ahead of time or to consult during the debate. The daunting task got harder.

In the days before General Conference, the Committee on Reference referred petitions that affected central conferences outside the U.S. to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters (SCCCM). The referrals included the main petitions for the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan, but not some other petitions from the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan that arguably also affected central conferences. This last minute referral took delegates by surprise. Normally, the SCCCM meets a day or two before General Conference to consider legislation that affects the central conferences. If the referral had been made weeks earlier, the SCCCM could have had adequate time to consider the referred petitions and possible revisions. As it was, the committee had only an hour after the day’s plenary session to discuss, amend, and vote on petitions — not nearly enough time. As a result, the petitions implementing accountability for annual conferences, providing the Traditional Plan’s exit path, and the Modified Traditional Plan’s enhancements were all voted down in committee, essentially killing them.

At the same time, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to rule on the remaining petition of the Modified Traditional Plan, which instituted a global process for administering complaints against bishops. The Judicial Council ruled that petition unconstitutional. The ruling stated that it is only the jurisdictional conference that can hold bishops accountable. Thus, by the end of the first day, the Modified Traditional Plan petitions were both dead.

In order to succeed, any plan to be passed at General Conference had to receive three votes in its favor. The first vote was a prioritization vote taken on the first day. In that vote, over 55 percent of the delegates gave the Traditional Plan a high priority. By contrast, the One Church Plan received only a 48 percent high priority vote. This set the stage for the Traditional Plan to be the first plan that the conference would work on.

The second vote any plan needed was to be approved by the legislative committee portion of the General Conference on the second day. In a moment of confusion, the conference passed a motion to end debate after only a few of the corrective amendments had been made, so that no further amendments could be made that day. However, the Traditional Plan received its second vote in favor, with over 56 percent voting yes.

In another attempt to head off the Traditional Plan, supporters of the OCP proposed asking the Judicial Council for yet another ruling on the provisions of the plan. Although little had changed in the plan, some OCP delegates were hoping to further discredit it by having it ruled unconstitutional again. That proposal easily received the required 20 percent of the vote to call for a Judicial Council decision. However, rather than announce during the public session that they would be acting on the request for a decision, the Judicial Council did not respond until after the session was adjourned. Advocates had less than two hours to prepare legal briefs for the Judicial Council to consider. And the decision itself was rendered after less than an hour of deliberations. Such a hasty process did not engender trust in the outcome of the decision, which was to reaffirm the unconstitutionality of eight of the sixteen Traditional Plan petitions and both of the exit path petitions.

Delaying tactics

This brought us to the third day and the third crucial vote on the plans. Delegates again attempted to make amendments to the Traditional Plan to correct the issues identified by the Judicial Council. Opponents of the Traditional Plan went into full stall mode, trying to run out the clock to prevent any amendments from being made. Presiding bishops appeared to cooperate with this strategy by failing to call on evangelicals who were trying to get the floor to make an amendment. Instead, it appeared that preference was given to people wanting to make speeches ahead of those wanting to make amendments.

The parliamentary process was used (and abused) to try to thwart the Traditional Plan. Some OCP supporters asked irrelevant questions and put forward multiple points of order. Most egregiously, some OCP supporters gained the floor claiming to make a speech in favor of the Traditional Plan, but then spoke against it. Such manipulative lying has no place in the church, but it demonstrates the desperation felt by some OCP supporters. In addition, some used the parliamentary trick of employing a point of order to “correct a misrepresentation.” But instead of correcting a factual error, they proceeded to launch into a speech against the Traditional Plan. The presiding bishops unfortunately allowed these kind of underhanded tactics without challenging them.

Equally disheartening were the troubling statements made by OCP supporters that betrayed their antipathy toward traditionalists. One prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of bringing a virus into the church, the virus of conflict, which would make the church sick. (As if the conflict had not already been provoked by those intentionally disobeying the church’s standards.) Another speaker decried “the spirit of hatred, judgment, and discrimination which creates division instead of unity.” Another delegate alleged that the Traditional Plan was born out of “a story of control or power or dominance.” A prominent moderate leader accused traditionalists of being Pharisees and elevating the Book of Discipline above the Bible, calling the Traditional Plan “hateful” and promising to “amend until the monster trucks roll in at 6:30.” (This alluded to the conference’s need to adjourn by 6:30 in order to make way for a monster truck rally scheduled to start the next day.)

In the middle of the debate, an unsubstantiated allegation surfaced that delegates were being bribed for their votes. While this allegation was referred to the ethics committee, it was never substantiated. The political strategy appeared to be to float the baseless allegation with the knowledge that it could never be addressed or refuted during the time left in the session. The ethics committee released a two paragraph statement after the General Conference stating that its investigation found no substance to the allegations.

Amidst all this turmoil and delay, only a few of the needed amendments could be made to correct the Traditional Plan. More time was taken debating points of order, suspension of the rules, and other parliamentary matters than working on the content of the plan. As the deadline for adjournment approached, the presiding bishop called for a vote on the Traditional Plan, which passed for the third time. For the remaining hour of the plenary session, people in the gallery continued to shout, sing, and try to (unsuccessfully) disrupt the proceedings.

It truly was a miracle that any plan passed General Conference, much less that it was the Traditional Plan. It was a miracle that as much of the Traditional Plan passed as did, and that parts of the plan can actually be implemented.

In a final act of desperation, the OCP supporters again passed a motion to ask the Judicial Council to review the Traditional Plan that was passed for its constitutionality. Again trying to sow doubt about the outcome of the conference, some are claiming that the Judicial Council could throw out the entire plan. As noted in last week’s Perspective, at least eight parts of the Traditional Plan were already found to be constitutional, and they will be implemented.

This level of conflict, the hateful language toward those holding a traditional position, and the determination to prevent the General Conference from accomplishing what the majority wanted to accomplish, tell us that our church is hopelessly divided and unable to continue living together. Why, then, are some progressives and moderates continuing to insist on forcing some type of unity — only on their terms? The 2020 General Conference is unlikely to change the direction of the church or reverse the accountability put in place by the Traditional Plan. Can the church’s leaders not work toward a different way to resolve our conflict that honors and respects the deep differences of conscience and theology?

 

 

What REALLY Happened in St. Louis (Part I)

The United Methodist Church has just finished four days of wrenching deliberation at the special called General Conference February 23-26. The conference demonstrated a deeply divided church — something that was readily apparent before we ever arrived in St. Louis. The vitriolic conflict that characterized the proceedings inflicted pain on persons of all perspectives, both participants and spectators.

Already, the “spin machine” is working overtime to attempt to paint the outcome to the advantage of institutionalists whose main interest is preserving the structure and finances of the church. Several statements have come out from bishops and other church leaders claiming that the direction of The United Methodist Church is somehow unclear.

Let us be clear about what happened at the St. Louis General Conference. By a vote of 449 to 374 (55 percent against), the delegates rejected the One Church Plan (OCP). The OCP was endorsed by a majority of the Council of Bishops. The OCP had its own website built to promote it. The OCP had all the general church agencies working overtime (on our apportionment dime) to lobby delegates in its favor. Despite this full-court press, the plan favored by the “establishment” was roundly rejected.

By a vote of 438 to 384 (53 percent in favor) the delegates instead passed the Traditional Plan. This plan maintains The United Methodist Church’s traditional biblical position on marriage and human sexuality. It also enhances accountability to ensure that bishops, clergy, and annual conferences live by the expectations set in our Book of Discipline.

Some parts of the Traditional Plan were found to be unconstitutional after a second Judicial Council ruling during General Conference. Furthermore, the plan was referred to the Judicial Council for a third look following final passage of the plan. Institutionalists tried every possible maneuver to delay the plan and to sow doubt about the plan’s final outcome.

Nevertheless, it is possible to know with some certainty the provisions of the Traditional Plan that have already been found constitutional and will be implemented.

  • The definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” now reasonably includes persons living in a same-sex marriage or union, and persons who publicly state they are practicing homosexuals. This change will aid in holding accountable clergy who violate the standards for ordained ministry.
  • Clergy who perform same-sex weddings, contravening the denomination’s prohibition, would receive a minimum penalty of one year’s suspension without pay after conviction by a trial court. A second offense would result in termination of credentials. This insures that defiant clergy who flaunt their disregard for denominational standards no longer get by with a slap on the wrist or no meaningful consequence.
  • Bishops are now prohibited from dismissing a complaint unless it has no basis in church law or in fact. No longer can bishops simply dismiss a complaint against a clergyperson that they do not want to deal with.
  • When a complaint is filed and a negotiated settlement is attempted, the complainant must be included in the process, and every effort must be made to secure the complainant’s agreement to any negotiated resolution of the complaint. The bishop may not negotiate a settlement with the accused that disregards the input of the complainant, securing the rights of those wronged by the accused’s actions.
  • The church now has the right to appeal a trial court verdict if it is tainted by egregious errors of church law or administration. Since our judicial system is administered by non-professionals, serious errors can be more common. This provision ensures that a wrongful verdict is not left unaddressed.
  • All persons nominated by the bishop to serve on the board of ordained ministry must certify their willingness to uphold and enforce the Book of Discipline’s standards for ordained ministry, and they may not recommend a person for commissioning or ordination who does not meet those standards, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual. This provision counters the nearly dozen annual conferences that are willing to ignore the denominational standards and recommend openly gay candidates for ordained ministry.
  • District committees on ordained ministry are specifically prohibited from recommending persons for candidacy or commissioning who do not meet the denomination’s qualifications, including for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual.
  • Bishops are prohibited from consecrating a person as bishop who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual, despite the fact they might be duly elected by a jurisdictional conference. They are also prohibited from ordaining or commissioning persons who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals, regardless of whether they are approved by the clergy session. This enables holding accountable individual bishops who ignore the denominational standards by going through with such consecrations or ordinations.

Unfinished business includes a Council of Bishops accountability process that enables placing bishops on involuntary retirement or involuntary leave of absence. An accountability process for annual conferences that do not abide by the requirements of the Discipline also needs to be completed. The exit path that was passed is unconstitutional. These can all be enacted by a majority vote at the 2020 General Conference, just 15 months from now.

Most importantly, The United Methodist Church sent a clear message that we will maintain traditional biblical moral standards on marriage and human sexuality. We will not forsake Scripture as our primary authority. We will remain united with our global United Methodist brothers and sisters with shared common ethics. Attempts to force The United Methodist Church to mimic progressive sexual ethics were not successful. Moves toward a disconnected congregational-style “contextualization” of our church were not supported by the only entity — the General Conference — that can speak for The United Methodist Church. The heavy-handed lobbying tactics of our bishops and general agencies proved to be futile.

There will be much more to say about this General Conference in the weeks ahead. But for now, we need to be aware that United Methodism reached an important turning point on Tuesday.

 

Revisions to the Modified Traditional Plan

In November, the Judicial Council declared portions of the Traditional Plan unconstitutional. Since that time, a team has been working on revisions to the Traditional Plan to bring it into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366. Any of the Traditional Plan petitions that are not mentioned below can be adopted without change.

For those of you who like to delve into all the details, here are the proposed revisions to the Traditional Plan. We are also proposing revisions to the Modified Traditional Plan petitions (two petitions submitted by Maxie Dunnam to augment the Traditional Plan) to bring them into compliance with JCD 1366.

The Renewal and Reform Coalition can support any one of three petitions on Disaffiliation (Boyette, Ottjes, or Taylor). The latter two also need revisions in order to make them compliant with the exit path ideas put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Traditional Plan. The linked document contains margin notes that explain the reason behind each of the recommended revisions.

The proposed revisions have been endorsed by the Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Mrs. Patricia Miller, and myself, who were all endorsers of the original Traditional Plan as members of the Commission on a Way Forward. The revisions are also endorsed by the Renewal and Reform Coalition. You can find more information about the coalition and our perspective on the various plans at methodistcrossroads.org.

Episcopal Accountability

The Judicial Council declared unconstitutional the proposal that the Council of Bishops hold its members accountable through a process that could result in an involuntary leave of absence or involuntary retirement. We do not see a way of salvaging this proposal. Therefore, we ask that petitions #2-4 of the Traditional Plan not be considered.

Instead, we propose that Petition 90078 (p. 211) – Modified Traditional Plan Global Episcopacy Committee submitted by Maxie Dunnam – be substituted in place of the original accountability proposal. This petition creates a Global Episcopacy Committee to administer the complaint process, in place of the current jurisdictional college of bishops. We have proposed revisions in Dunnam’s petition to clarify some matters that were raised as questions. We have also deleted provisions that were declared unconstitutional.

Board of Ordained Ministry Membership/Responsibilities

Petition #5 of the Traditional Plan needed to have the word “practicing” inserted, to clarify that we are talking about self-avowed practicing homosexuals in terms of ordination. The word was inadvertently left out in the original version.

Petition #6-9 were revised to broaden the responsibility for upholding the entire Discipline, including all the qualifications of ordination and all applicable disciplinary standards (JCD 1366). Revisions also indicate who is to “certify” to whom that these provisions are being observed.

Traditional Plan Implementation

Petition #10 is the implementation of the Traditional Plan. We propose to substitute Petition #90079 (p. 212) – Modified Traditional Plan Implementation Process submitted by Maxie Dunnam – to replace petition #10. It is nearly identical to petition #10, with the following additions:

  • The Global Episcopacy Committee becomes responsible for investigating complaints against annual conferences for not upholding the Discipline and would administer complaints against bishops for not upholding the Discipline or committing chargeable offenses related to homosexuality.
  • Bishops who cannot affirm their willingness to uphold and enforce the Discipline would not receive money from the general church for expenses (travel, office, and housing).
  • Annual conferences that choose to withdraw from The United Methodist Church would receive a one-time grant of $200,000 to help defray transitional expenses.
  • Technical language is added insuring that the plan takes effect upon adjournment of General Conference, rather than January 1, 2020.

This Modified Traditional Plan petition has been revised in light of JCD 1366 to broaden the requirement of upholding the Discipline to include the whole Discipline, with special emphasis on provisions related to qualifications for ordination, unauthorized conduct, responsibilities of the Council on Finance and Administration, and chargeable offenses. The revisions clarify that annual conferences or bishops that declare unwillingness to uphold the Discipline are not thereby given the right to negate, ignore, or violate the Discipline. The Council of Bishops accountability process is removed as being unconstitutional. Clergy are reminded of their accountability to the whole Discipline and withdrawal is allowed, but not “encouraged” (again, to address JCD 1366). The process for local churches to withdraw (transfer) from the UM Church to a self-governing Methodist church is revised in light of ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by both the charge conference and the church conference, as well as a 2/3 vote by the annual conference. Revisions correct the effective date of withdrawal in light of ¶ 41 and specify the annual conference trustees as the body to deal with withdrawing congregations, rather than the bishop. All of these revisions then would make this petition constitutional under JCD 1366.

Just Resolution

Petition #14 is revised to state that all just resolutions for clergy shall include a renewed commitment by the respondent to adhere to the Book of Discipline in its entirety, including the provisions that were the subject of the complaint. This brings the petition into compliance with JCD 1366.

Church Right of Appeal

The Judicial Council did not declare petition #16 unconstitutional, but they raised some questions about it. Proposed revisions would define “egregious errors of Church law or administration” that would justify a church appeal. Revisions also clarify that such an appeal does not constitute double jeopardy (since egregious error invalidated the original trial). We anticipate these revisions would answer the concerns of the Judicial Council.

Exit Plans

For a more thorough evaluation of the need for an exit path, please see my previous blog. The Renewal and Reform Coalition believes a standardized exit path for congregations should be available, regardless of which plan (or no plan) is passed by General Conference. We encourage the Conference to take up an exit path first, to alleviate anxiety and avoid the exit path being unfairly influenced by whichever plan is adopted. The exit path/transfer provisions in the Modified Traditional Plan (see above) are rendered a bit problematic by Judicial Council 1366, in that they would now require a 2/3 vote by the annual conference. We believe the annual conference should not be able to block a local church from withdrawing from the denomination. The solution, then, is to pass in addition one of the exit plans discussed here.

All three exit plans supported by the Renewal and Reform Coalition allow individual local churches to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in a way that allows them to keep their property and assets, as well as liabilities. None of them dictates that a local church must join a new denomination, since that is what would cause problems with Judicial Council 1366. However, most congregations departing the UM Church would want to form part of a new connection.

The Boyette disaffiliation petition (Petition #90059, p. 201) is acceptable to the Renewal and Reform Coalition as it stands. It requires a 2/3 vote by the charge conference OR a 55 percent majority vote by the church conference, but no vote by the annual conference in order to withdraw. It stipulates that unfunded pension liabilities must be paid, but requires no other payment. This proposal uses general church unrestricted reserves to offset pension liabilities, reducing the amount a local church might pay. If that provision is objectionable, it can be removed by an amendment.

The Ottjes disaffiliation petition (Petition #90058, p. 201) is also acceptable to the Coalition. It has the advantage that a legislative committee already adopted it in 2016 before it was referred to the Commission on a Way Forward process. Under this plan, local church withdrawal could happen with a 2/3 vote of the church conference, but no vote by the annual conference. This proposal needs amendments to include payment of unfunded pension liabilities. Revisions also include technical language to clarify implementation and insure that the legislation would take effect at the close of General Conference.

The Taylor disaffiliation petition (Petition #90066, p. 205) is acceptable to the Coalition with revisions. It mandates a ¶ 213 review of the church’s ministry and projected viability, which would add months to the disaffiliation process and give persons outside the congregation a decisive voice in that congregation’s future, which the Coalition disagrees with. It gives the annual conference the ability to require additional conditions and/or other payments from the disaffiliating church, which defeats the purpose of having a standard exit path and creates the possibility of an annual conference insisting on unacceptable payments. In addition to a 2/3 vote by the church conference and the payment of unfunded pension liabilities, this proposal requires the local church to be current on paying its previous 12 months of apportionments and pay an additional 12 months. Adding all these payments puts the local church at risk of not being able to thrive in its ongoing ministry and could jeopardize its viability. Technical revisions are required, as well, to bring the proposal into compliance with JCD 1366 and clarify implementation. With these revisions, the Coalition could support the Taylor proposal. However, it might be simpler to adopt the revised Ottjes proposal or the Boyette proposal.

Conclusion

Our team believes that the proposed revisions bring all of the petitions into compliance with Judicial Council Decision 1366. We encourage continued prayer for the delegates and the decisions of the General Conference. We look forward to a prayerful, positive General Conference that will determine the future direction of our church and allow us to move forward in vital mission and ministry.

 

 

 

Laity and the One Church Plan

One of the less noticed aspects of the One Church Plan (OCP) is how it minimizes the voices of laity in the various decisions around marriage and sexuality.

The OCP allows any pastor to perform a same-sex wedding, whether the local church approves or not. Laity would have a voice in whether same-sex weddings could take place on local church property, but such a decision would require a congregational vote in a church conference.

The OCP would delegate to every annual conference the decision about whether or not to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy. In the first instance, this decision would be made by the annual conference board of ordained ministry, which does include some laypersons making up 20 to 33 percent of the board’s membership. Ultimately, however, the clergy session of the annual conference would vote whether or not to approve individual candidates who are self-avowed practicing homosexuals. This group consists of all the annual conference’s ordained clergy, plus the lay members of the board of ordained ministry. The lay voice would be overwhelmed in this setting.

It is ironic that two of the three provisions of the OCP declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council would have broadened the voice of laity.

One provision provided that the bishop could “seek the non-binding advice of an annual conference session on standards relating to human sexuality for ordination to inform the Board of Ordained Ministry in its work.” This provision was ruled unconstitutional because the bishop cannot advise the Board of Ordained Ministry about anything. (The provision could be made constitutional by rewording it to eliminate any reference to the bishop.)

The other provision said, “Clergy who cannot in good conscience continue to serve a particular church based on unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage as communicated by the pastor and Staff-Parish Relations Committee to the district superintendent, shall be reassigned.” This provision provided a voice to a congregation’s laity in requesting a new pastor via the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. It was ruled unconstitutional, however, because the General Conference cannot infringe upon the bishop’s right to decide appointments. So the congregation can request a new pastor because of “unresolved disagreements over same-sex marriage,” but there is no guarantee that the bishop will appoint a new pastor. (A change of wording cannot salvage this provision.)

As of this writing, there has been no public indication that I am aware of that the authors of the One Church Plan intend to rectify the areas found unconstitutional by the Judicial Council.

In an October 22 article by UM News Service, the Rev. Stan Copeland (a presenter at a Uniting Methodists event last summer favoring the OCP) reflected the attitude of some toward lay participation. According to the article, “one part of the plan doesn’t thrill Copeland: A congregation must have a majority vote in favor of hosting same-sex weddings before holding one on church property. Copeland would rather the pastor and other local church leaders make that call. ‘Any time we have a (congregational) vote it’s potentially divisive,’ said Copeland, longtime pastor of Dallas’ Lovers Lane United Methodist Church.”

The OCP comes across as somewhat paternalistic toward laity. Many advocates of the plan seem to imply that they alone know the best course for the church’s future, and that laity in general do not need to be involved in making those decisions.

This is a mistake. If laity do not feel empowered to be part of the decision-making process regarding their church’s beliefs and practices, they will have less ownership of the outcome. Less ownership means reduced loyalty and a diminished inclination to stay in the church.

Closely aligned with that concern is the question whether the final decision of General Conference represents the thoughts and beliefs of the majority of grass-roots laity. While no surveys have been done of United Methodist members, there is reason to believe a large proportion (if not the majority) of laity in the U.S. hold to a traditional definition of marriage and hope the church continues to uphold what they believe is the clear teaching of Scripture on this matter. Not all would leave the church if it changes its definition of marriage, but many would.

Of course, the views of laity in Africa, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe (over 40 percent of the global church’s membership) are strongly traditional. Will the outcome of General Conference adequately reflect their views?

By contrast, both the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) and the Traditional Plan (TP) involve laity in the crucial decisions regarding the church’s future. Under the CCP, jurisdictional and annual conferences, consisting of one-half lay delegates representing their local churches, would vote on which of the three theological branches to affiliate with. Local churches that disagree with the decision of their annual conference could vote in a congregational meeting to affiliate with a different branch.

The TP would require every annual conference (again, one-half laity representing their local churches) to vote whether or not that annual conference would “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the Discipline. If not, laity would have the same large say in whether that annual conference voted to leave The United Methodist Church to form or join a new self-governing Methodist church. Local churches that disagreed with the decision of their annual conference could vote by a congregational meeting to take a different decision, including the possibility of withdrawing from the UM Church to join a new self-governing Methodist church.

 

Laity’s voice is an integral part of the Traditional Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan, whereas the One Church Plan tends to minimize the voices of lay members. That is a factor that General Conference delegates should consider when they evaluate the various options before them in St. Louis.

 

 

Is the Traditional Plan Unconstitutional?

Minnesota Conference clergy and laity gathered at Normandale Hylands United Methodist Church hold table talk discussions about the three plans set to be considered by the special General Conference. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS.

Anxious church commentators are wondering if the latest development in the lead-up to the special called General Conference in February 2019 means the Traditional Plan is fatally flawed.

In a comprehensive 58-page ruling released October 26, the Judicial Council has rendered its opinion on whether the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditional Plan are constitutional and in conformity with other parts of the United Methodist Book of Discipline.

The short answer is that the Traditional Plan is alive and, while a bit broken, can be fixed. (The Traditional Plan would retain the current position of the church on marriage and human sexuality, enhance accountability, and provide a gracious exit for those who cannot live within the church’s expectations.) The One Church Plan, also described as the “local option,” survived scrutiny with a few minor provisions ruled unconstitutional. The Judicial Council declined to evaluate the Connectional Conference Plan, since the  Book of Discipline does not allow the Council to evaluate proposed constitutional amendments, which are an integral part of the plan.

It is important to note that the Judicial Council was ruling on the legality of various parts of the plans, not on the wisdom of enacting any of them. The decision states, “The task of the Judicial Council is to pass upon the constitutionality of the legislative petitions without expressing an opinion as to their merits or expediency. It is up to the General Conference to determine the wisdom of each plan” (p. 1).

The big picture is that the situation is unchanged following the Judicial Council decision. The General Conference will still be able to consider all three plans. Aspects of the two plans evaluated will need to be modified or dropped from the plans in order to address the concerns raised by the Judicial Council. Delegates can put forward such modifications as amendments during the February General Conference.

Evaluating the Traditional Plan

It is not surprising that the Judicial Council found a greater number of problems with the Traditional Plan (TP) petitions. Because the Council of Bishops instructed the Commission on a Way Forward not to develop the details of the TP, it did not receive the same amount of attention and vetting that the One Church Plan and Connectional Conference Plan received. The Judicial Council’s work, therefore, is a blessing to help refine and perfect the TP.

The Judicial Council found constitutional problems with 7 of the 17 Traditional Plan (TP) petitions, as well as with parts of two others. Most of these problems can be fixed with relatively straightforward changes in the wording, without changing the content of the petitions or what they are trying to accomplish.

The idea that the Council of Bishops could hold its members accountable to the Discipline (Petitions 2-4) is no longer viable after the Judicial Council ruled it unconstitutional. The Council ruled that the same bishops who filed a complaint against another bishop for disobedience could not then sit in judgment on that bishop. The decision states, “The COB was not designed to function like an inquisitional court tasked with enforcing doctrinal purity within its ranks. This arrangement poses significant dangers to a person’s right to a fair and unbiased determination of her or his case. There are no safeguards put in place to guarantee an impartial process carried out by an independent body” (p. 32).

Renewal and Reform Coalition leaders have long been skeptical that the Council of Bishops would be able to hold its members accountable in any meaningful way. That is why we proposed an alternative disciplinary process for bishops administered by a new Global Episcopacy Committee. Maxie Dunnam submitted this idea in a petition to the special General Conference. Because it was not part of the original TP, this idea was not part of the Judicial Council evaluation. Based on their ruling, however, I believe it is a viable process that could provide meaningful accountability for bishops.

Several petitions require members of the Board of Ordained Ministry to certify that they will “uphold, enforce and maintain The Book of Discipline related to commissioning, ordination and marriage of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” They would require the bishop to certify that all the members he or she appoints to the board have agreed to do so. And they would require that the annual conference certify that all members appointed to the board have agreed to do so.

The Judicial Council’s problem with these petitions was that the requirement focused on certain provisions of the Discipline to the exclusion of others. “The certification is incomplete and selective because it relates to some but not all applicable standards of The Discipline and targets one particular group of candidates for disqualification” (p. 35). This problem can be corrected with a simple language change clarifying that upholding of the whole Discipline is required, not just certain parts to the exclusion of others.

The same problem of “selective certification” was cited as the Judicial Council nullified the provisions requiring annual conferences and bishops to declare their willingness to “support, uphold, and maintain accountability to” the standards of the church regarding ordination and marriage. Again, this can be corrected by a simple language change.

Importantly, the Judicial Council declared that the Constitution does permit an annual conference to withdraw from The United Methodist Church under conditions established by the General Conference. However, the Council ruled that local churches cannot withdraw under the process set forth in the TP. It ruled that the process must comply with ¶ 41, which requires a 2/3 vote by the congregation and also by the annual conference to approve withdrawal. However, this is a misreading of ¶ 41, which deals with congregations transferring from one UM annual conference to another. It has no bearing on the conditions for a congregation withdrawing from the church. I am requesting that the Judicial Council reconsider its ruling on this aspect of the plan.

The other aspects of the Traditional Plan were upheld.

Evaluating the One Church Plan

The One Church Plan (OCP) was largely held to be constitutional. Several provisions meant to give greater protection to a traditionalist viewpoint were struck down for various reasons. Some could probably be salvaged by changes in wording.

More significantly, the Judicial Council ruled that the idea of “connectionalism” under which our church operates “permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality” (p. 1). The idea that the church could establish moral or ethical standards that are different from one place to another strikes me as unbiblical. Standards for right and wrong should not vary from one country or culture to another.

Think about that. Do not moral and ethical standards by their very nature apply across “geographical, social, and cultural variations?” Should lying be permitted for some social classes, but not others? Should bribery be acceptable in some cultures, but not others? Should same-sex marriage be permissible for Christians in some countries, but not in others? That makes no sense. If something is a moral or ethical matter, by definition it should apply in all similar situations.

It seems to me the Judicial Council is discounting the uniform basis for the “vital web of interactive relationships” that form our connection (see ¶ 132 in the Book of Discipline). Our connection with each other is based on “a common tradition of faith, including Our Doctrinal Standards and General Rules (¶ 104); by sharing together a constitutional polity, including a leadership of general superintendency; by sharing a common mission, which we seek to carry out by working together in and through conferences that reflect the inclusive and missional character of our fellowship; by sharing a common ethos that characterizes our distinctive way of doing things” (¶ 132). Where the common foundation is missing, the “web of interactive relationships” cannot develop or sustain itself. And that is what we see happening in our denomination, as the common foundation of beliefs and practices is eroded by the many issues that divide us.

The One Church Plan creates a “a diversity of beliefs” and non-uniform standards of ordination. A person who could be ordained as clergy in one annual conference would not be acceptable for ordination in a different annual conference. This undermines the understanding of ordained ministry as a connectional matter. As Judicial Council Decision 544 puts it, “Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide.” It understands each annual conference as a “door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church.” But someone entering that door in one annual conference would no longer be acceptable to other annual conferences, which means that we would no longer have one connected “ministry of the entire church.”

I believe the Judicial Council is mistaken in their understanding of connectionalism.

The Judicial Council also made a clear ruling that narrowed the scope of what is legally considered our doctrinal standards. They ruled that only changes to the wording of the Articles of Religion or Confession of Faith can be legally reviewed by the Judicial Council. This ignores the fact that the 2016 Book of Disciplineconsiders Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament as doctrinal standards. “[The Plan of Union 1968] stated that although the language of the first Restrictive Rule never has been formally defined, Wesley’s Sermons and Notes were understood specifically to be included in our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 104).

Judicial Council ruled, “Only the General Conference is competent to determine whether its enactment establishes a new standard or rule of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (p. 13, citing Decisions 1027 and 243). However, that means there is no independent review of a General Conference action. By a majority vote, the General Conference can declare that its action does not “establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine” (Discipline, ¶ 17) and therefore does not require a constitutional amendment process.

So even though Wesley’s Notes define marriage as between “one man and one woman only” (Notes on Genesis 16 and 30, also see notes on Matthew 19 and Mark 10), the General Conference can change the definition of marriage to “two adults” and there is no independent body to review such a decision. This greatly narrows the enforceability of our doctrinal standards, particularly in the face of principled determination to maneuver around them.

Fortunately, the Judicial Council was only ruling on what is legal, not on what the church ought to do. The General Conference can and should still defeat the One Church Plan, adopt a revised Traditional Plan, and preserve a more robust sense of connectionalism founded on our common relationship with Jesus Christ, our adherence to biblical teaching, and our shared understanding of doctrine. Anything less will lead to a splintering of the church.